Sunday, October 21, 2007

Naufús Figueroa // Muxux Uleu

Holding on and Letting Go

I feel the weight of responsibility, and the privilege of witnessing Muxux Uleu--to be clear, honest, and respectful.

It was like heading off to summer camp. The audience, once again mostly other artists, piled into a big yellow-orange school bus to head for the beach. It was one of those cold, drizzly days that really gets under your skin. There was a shallow circular depression in the sand, about 4 or more feet in diameter. We were on an off-leash dog beach just west of the Maritime Museum. We milled around, taking in the details. We marked the spinnakers, sailboats, and tankers on the horizon. A bald eagle peered down at us from a totem pole. Bags of brightly coloured gumballs lay in the sand. Starlings gossiped in the trees around us flaming with fall color.

The artist was dressed in a black jacket and black pants. He said, "You're the first to begin," and asked me to put handfuls of the candy into the hole. Someone had told me the candy represented "the lost children of Guatemala." I tried to be very respectful of the gumballs, because of what I thought they represented. Other audience members joined in, eager to help create an image they had in their minds of what the ritual would be, based on their expectations and an image of the performance in Chicago which was in the LIVE program.

LIVE5 Photos: Muxux Uleu Photo Set

People were solemn, yet playful. They threw the gumballs in different creative gestures and some popped gumballs into their mouths, snapping and popping bubbles. Whenever a gumball fell outside the circular pit I felt compelled to push it inside, a gesture based on my own preconceptions of what a ritual "should" be. "Now have some tea. " Naufús announced, but there was none to be see for now. We waited and mingled. The waiting made me more ware of my own body and how bloody cold I was.

Next, the artist started to get the materials ready for burning the candy. Because of the damp weather, extreme measures had to be taken--the use of starter bricks and light fluid. Figueroa got the fire started, with people giving them suggestions and warning him not to get lighter fluid on his clothes. The candy in the middle started to sizzle. The fire burnt the color off the tops of the candies, exposing the white "bellies" underneath. The sugar began to caramelize and bubble. The smell was unforgettable--burnt sugar and lighter fluid. It was nightmarish. I thought of my own bitter childhood trauma, my house burning down when I was seven. Tea finally arrived and was served graciously by Trolley Bus pronouncing the blessing, " May your lips never be dry." It was a yerba maté tea mixed with a North American (Coast Salish?) cleansing tea, very appropriate for the occasion, warming, and delicious. People tried to move the fire along, throwing the candy from the edge into the middle and added cardboard and more lighter fluid. Cameras whirred and clicked and murmurations of starlings formed quickly shifting clouds above the trees.

Naufús had created a "navel" in the earth, a symbolic of procreation used as a site for a fire offering to his ancestors, and in particular his grandfather, who was also a ritual artist. I learned later (in a conversation with the artist) that the monkey dance, which his grandfather performed, was done on a tall pole. When he became too old to dance, his job was to dig the hole that the pole was anchored in. The burning candy refers to a childhood nightmare the artist experienced where he dreamt that his ancestral artifacts were all catching on fire. The image also reminds him of a giant circular sinkhole in his childhood neighborhood in Guatemala city that collapsed, taking thirteen houses down with it. Through his dream, Figueroa decided it was time to let go of some elements of his past and move on with his own life in his new home country of Canada.

As I witnessed and interpreted this ritual, I saw it as a celebration of inherited tradition and a letting go of the past. There was a quality of indecision in the ritual on the part of the artist which allowed the audience (many of them performers themselves) shape the actions. I suspect that this added to the tension in the piece regarding the preserving and letting go of the past. The shared ritual, if not literally about the lost children of Guatemala, is about the loss of childhood innocence, cutting the umbilical cord of one's birthplace in order to grow into the new (dis)placement.

Lori Weidenhammer

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